Quetta - A huge earthquake hit southwest Pakistan on Tuesday, killing at least 80 people, toppling scores of homes and sending people around the region rushing into the streets in panic. However, it was feared, amid conflicting reports, that the death toll could be higher. 
The 7.8-magnitude quake — which sparked warnings of heavy casualties from seismologists — was centred in Balochistan province’s Awaran district but was felt as far afield as New Delhi and Dubai.
Officials said the quake, which struck at 4:29 pm, demolished a number of mud houses. Its epicentre was 20 kilometres below ground.
The worst-hit Awaran area is sparsely populated and most buildings are mud-built. But the US Geological Survey issued a red alert, warning that heavy casualties were likely based on past data.
“A large number of houses have collapsed in the area and we fear the death toll may rise,” said Rafiq Lassi, police chief for Awaran district.
The provincial government declared an emergency in Awaran and the military mobilised medical teams as well as soldiers and paramilitary troops to help with the immediate relief effort.
“We have received reports that many homes in Awaran district have collapsed. We fear many deaths,” Jan Muhammad Baledi, a spokesman for the Balochistan government, said.
“There are not many doctors in the area but we are trying to provide maximum facilities in the affected areas.”
Television footage showed collapsed houses, caved-in roofs and people sitting in the open air outside their homes, the rubble of mud and bricks scattered around them.
Abdul Qudoos Bizinjo, deputy speaker of Baluchistan’s parliament, said there were reports of “heavy losses” in Awaran. Damage to the mobile phone network was hampering communications in the area, he said.
Awaran district has an estimated population of around 300,000, scattered over an area of more than 21,000 square kilometres (8,000 square miles).
Balochistan Assembly Deputy Speaker Mir Qudus Bizenjo said at least 150 people had been killed in Awaran.
Shabbir Baloch, a local journalist of Awaran, feared the death toll could jump past 200. He said four villages in the vicinity of Awaran were completely destroyed. Huge land fissures could be seen in the entire area, he said.
Kalat Commissioner Dr Akbar said scores of deaths had been reported in Mashkey area.
The commissioner said that two medical teams, one from Khuzdar and another from Uthal, had been dispatched to the worst-affected area of Awaran.
All the hospitals in the entire division have been placed on high alert. The commissioner said critically injured could be sent to Karachi for better treatment.
More than 50 percent urban settlements in Awaran were destroyed and over 90 per cent of houses were razed or damaged in the rural areas, Mir Qudus Bizenjo, deputy speaker of Balochistan Assembly, told newsmen on the telephone.
At least six persons lost their lives in the Dandar area of Kech district in house collapse. A six year old girl was killed under the debris as her house collapsed in Jusak area of Kech.
When contacted, Awaran DPO Muhammad Ashraf Jattak said over 40 dead bodies had been brought to a local hospital while the number of the injured was in hundreds. “There is only one ambulance available to bring the injured and dead bodies from far-off areas of Awaran,” he said, adding that only three doctors were present to provide treatment to the injured.
He said the injured and dead bodies were being brought by vehicles of Levies and police.
The provincial disaster management authority chief claimed that PDMA had dispatched 1,000 tents and as many food packets to Awaran for the victims of the earthquake.
When asked about the deaths and destruction in the earthquake, Acting PDMA chief Latif Kakar said that information was pouring in from all directions, mainly from Awaran and its surrounding settlements.
According to an announcement of the Inter-Services Public Relations, army units had been deployed in Awaran and Mashkey for rescue and relief operation and relief goods were being dispatched to various spots using army helicopters. Contingents of the Frontier Corps had also rushed to the quake-affected region to participate in rescue and relief activities.
Meanwhile, the provincial government announced the chief secretary would personally supervise the relief and rescue operation in the worst-affected areas.
Another local journalist, quoting the deputy commissioner, said thousands of mud houses had collapsed in the devastating earthquake.
The worst-affected townships, villages and human settlements are Nok Jo, Parwar, Gajjar, Teri Angoor, Teer Taj, Malar, Mangoli, Gheskaur and Zabaz.
Awaran Deputy Commissioner Abdur Rashid Baloch confirmed large-scale destruction. Most of the people were being shifted to safer places where they were being provided with shelter and food.
Jolts were also felt in Quetta, Chagai, Dalbandin, Naushki, Panjgur, Turbat, Gwadar, Pasni, Ormara, Mastung, Kalat, Sorab, Khuzdar, Sibi, Naseerabad, Jaffarabad, Lasbela, Taftan, Nokkundi and dozens of other cities and townships of Balochistan .
The 7.6 magnitude quake in 2005 centred in Kashmir killed at least 73,000 people and left several million homeless in one of the worst natural disasters to hit Pakistan.
In April a 7.8-magnitude quake in southeast Iran, close to the border with Balochistan , killed 41 people and affected more than 12,000 on the Pakistan side of the border.
The Red Crescent in Tehran reported no damage from the latest quake.
Balochistan , Pakistan’s largest but least populous province, is believed to have substantial gas and oil reserves, but it is violent and unstable.